While we may not like being in the midst of a pandemic, mass protests, economic recession, and murder hornets, that’s where we are. But however hard all of it is on us, it’s even harder on our brains.
Why? Because the massive changes and uncertainty that we’ve been immersed in have huge impacts on our “mental bandwidth.” If you haven’t heard of mental bandwidth, it’s kind of like your thinking resources. In general, most of the work our brains do is automatic—not within our awareness. Only about 0.1% of our brains’ resources are within our conscious control—equal to about one short sentence each second. That’s it. That tiny bit is our mental bandwidth. It is extremely limited and extremely important. We need it to learn, to make choices, and to do almost anything of meaning in our lives.
Our mental bandwidth is especially pertinent right now, because the extreme drains on it right now have created a unique “brain environment” that primes us for protest and activism.
Point #1 - The current state of the world exhausts our bandwidth.
The pandemic has brought with it immense uncertainty, which our brains see as a threat, thus requiring massive amounts of bandwidth. As humans, we yearn for certainty. If you need proof of that, just ask any parent of a school-aged child what they’d give for certainty about school opening “normally” this fall. They know as well as anyone, uncertainty devours our mental bandwidth.
Also, since the start of the pandemic, many of our routines have been changed or lost. This is really hard on our brains. When something is routine to us, our brains do it automatically. But when something is unusual, we have to use our bandwidth. Given the sheer number of routine things that are no longer routine for many of us, our brains are bandwidth-exhausted.
For some of us, our brains are also jarred by finally recognizing (or admitting to) the undeniable and insidious presence of racial injustices in nearly all of the spaces, practices, and beliefs that have been long been upheld as “normal” and acceptable in the United States. This disrupts typical brain narratives—that everything is pretty good; we are a fair and just society; and if we try hard enough, we can do anything. This mental disturbance is also extremely bandwidth-demanding.
Point #2: Our brains our primed to disrupt unjust norms.
All of this is clearly a lot for our brains to handle. But while the brain struggle is undeniably disturbing, it also presents an exceptional opportunity to “rewire” some of our most elemental ways of being in the world, and to fundamentally change societal systems and structures that guide our actions.
To build justice in an unjust society, we need to be willing to disrupt “normal,” which can make our brains very uncomfortable. Usually, our brains respond to this discomfort by retreating to safety and falling back on the actions and narratives that are automatic, and less bandwidth-demanding. That’s why, normally, we tolerate clear injustices, and don’t revolt when, for example, low-income communities continue to go without grocery stores or affordable medical clinics, simply because it’s in the best interest of corporate profit.
Since the pandemic began, many of our brains’ “safe spaces” are in chaos, and we spend much of our time in brain discomfort, no matter what we do. Because we don’t have so many automatic routines to fall back on, ANY actions we take are going to require bandwidth. So because our new choice is between having brain discomfort and allowing injustices to continue, or having brain discomfort and trying to stop those injustices, taking action actually feels less brain-demanding than usual, so is more likely to happen.
The outrage about the killing of George Floyd demonstrates this. Why did we see such activism this time? Because our brains were submerged in the excruciating uncertainty of a pandemic. When George Floyd was murdered, it undermined our inherent belief in justice and triggered our need to act. But because we couldn’t retreat to the brain safety of routines, we stepped up in opposition to the injustice. Disrupting in the midst of disruption was more doable, because our brains were (and still are) primed for things to be different. We must take advantage of this the continued disruption from the pandemic.
Point #3: Now is the time to act.
Some may say, “Wait, didn’t you just say my brain is exhausted from everything? How can I afford to do things that are challenging; that I haven’t done before?” The response is simple—you can’t afford not to. Now might be one of the rare times in our lives when we can invest the time and energy and bandwidth into the fight for justice and expect to see lasting change. We must not let this opportunity pass.
For some, whose mental bandwidth was exhausted long before the pandemic—by extreme financial worries, lifetimes of discrimination, and nearly constant threat and uncertainty—this is harder to ask than ever. It’s like asking someone who spent days fighting a fire to build themself a new house before they rest. We must recognize and respect that some people make life or death decisions when they choose how to fight this fight.
But, for the rest of us, this is the time to step away from norms that perpetuate injustice and into the revolt. We could try to settle back into old norms to reach that comfortable brain state, but it’s not going to work. The pandemic shows no sign of letting up. The uncertainty and disruption will be with us, no matter what, for a while.
Choosing not to go back to old norms will make our brains uncomfortable; it’s true. And probably those who hold power, and thus zealously support those norms, will try their best to make our lives uncomfortable too. But we have to move through this distressing time somehow; our brains are giving us a chance to do it with purpose.
To move forward, we must focus on action, not on thought. Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, tweeted on May 27th, “I don’t have easy answers for you. And honestly I want us to stop looking for them and start supporting the organizing work people are doing and have been doing.”
This is the heart of the answer. There are wise and strong and exhausted people out there doing this work, and we must help. The Black Lives Matter website has excellent starting points. Local action can be identified through a number of online sources. And we can look at our own homes, schools, workplaces, or communities, and begin to dismantle racism and implement anti-racist practices there.
This will not be an easy task, and we (and our brains) may be quite uncomfortable with it. But we’re not going to find comfort in a pandemic anyway, right? We must not let this opportunity slip by. Action is necessary, and our brains are primed for it.